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In Conversation: DJ Jazzy Jeff

In Conversation: DJ Jazzy Jeff

Of course known for his sidekick role in the hit sitcom The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air alongside Will Smith, DJ Jazzy Jeff has so much more to offer than comic relief in his repertoire. Three Grammy Awards tucked under his belt and that’s only scratching the surface of his skills as a DJ, producer and pioneer in music, claiming hundreds of international dates per year to showcase his unparalleled skills as a mixer, selector and scratcher.

Southport Weekender invite this incomparable turntable master to London on Saturday 9th June, alongside the likes of Sister Sledge ft Kathy Sledge, David Morales, Hector Romero, Soul II Soul and many, many more.

Tell us a bit about what people can expect from a Jazzy Jeff DJ set?

Oh man! It can be a little bit of everything, I kind of think that I enjoy my sets even more than the people that come to see them because if I can make myself happy I think it kind of transfer to everybody else. I absolutely do not like playing only one genre of music, because I don’t know a person on earth that only likes one genre of music. I just like to put a bunch of good music in a pot, stir it up and see how it comes out. For the most part, I’m dancing and having a good time in my head while I’m playing it for people.

Do you just go with the vibe of the crowd then for your sets? You don’t pre plan what you’re going to play before you get there?

I don’t want to know 100%, I kind of have an idea in my head, and then I feed off the energy of people because a lot of times I can say “I want to play this type of set” and you never know, the DJ before you could play half of the stuff you had in your head that you wanted to play, you just make a quick change. But I think just playing according to how you feel works for me more than anything. Just getting the vibe of the people, there’s so many things that come into play, how late, or how early I’m playing, how much music have people already digested.

If you’re playing late in the set, and you realise people have been partying for a really long time, I like to tone it down a little bit, just so you don’t burn people out. If it’s right in the meat of the set and someone’s played a little bit of a milder set before you, I like to turn it up a little. I really enjoy the journey of figuring it out as I’m doing it. I have an idea in my head but I think it’s really cool when you sort of discover something on the fly that it’s like “I think this is going to work really, really well” and you play something and everybody goes crazy and you’re like “yes, I was right!”

Although you have an eclectic taste, you’re known for your ties to hip-hop and a couple of years ago contributed to the Straight Outta Compton soundtrack - how has hip hop influenced your role within music?

I’ve been DJing pre-hip hop, that’s where the benefit comes in because hip hop is pretty much all kinds of music. This is what I’ve always told people, hip hop isn’t necessarily a music form, hip hop is a lyrical form over any kind of music. That’s why you can do hip hop over jazz, you can do hip hop over rock, you can do hip hop over funk and soul. Just being around before people were playing hip hop records just gave you a good read on music, I had rock records I would play, I had funk and soul records - hip hop is what exploded - that was just an extension of everything else I would play.

I’m predominantly known in hip hop because I was known as part of a hip hop group, but it started way before hip hop, and I’ve done house compilations, I love all kinds of music so I think that hip hop is just a seasoning onto all of the stuff that was already there.

Something I’ve always noticed when I’ve seen any footage of you DJing is that you love a good scratch, is this something you wish there was more of in the current scenes?

You know what? I’ve always felt like scratching was seasoning. You don’t necessarily have to do it, but doing it at the right time, and for the right amount adds something really special. It’s almost like with any sort of seasoning when you go to get a good meal. Too much salt is not good! No salt at all, van be not good! But just the right amount of salt, you’re like “oh my god this tastes amazing”. That’s another thing that I read from the audience and decide to do how little or how much depending on the vibe of the night.

It’s quite an old school quality of mixing, and a lot of newer DJs don’t use vinyl, and as a DJ who cut his teeth on vinyl - with there being no other available technology, what are are your opinions on the other forms of DJing?

I feel like people have lost the concept of what a DJ actually is. A DJ isn’t about his equipment, a DJ isn’t about the technology, a DJ is about the music. I look at like, I’m playing to a room of people, if there’s 10,000 people in the room, five hundred people can see what I’m doing, which means 95% of the people can only hear - that’s the most important thing.

So I don’t care how you present your music, I don’t care about the technology you use, at the end of the day I look at it like I’m coming to have a good time, I want to dance. I don’t care what you’re using, I’m only mad if you don’t make me dance.

You’re headed to London for Southport Weekender this summer, alongside the likes of Sister Sledge ft Kathy Sledge, David Morales, Soul II Soul and more - are there any acts you’re looking forward to seeing?

Every one that you just named! Southport is one of my favourite events to do because there’s always someone on the lineup that you are looking forward to seeing. This year’s going to be no different. I like to come early and I like to just kind of walk around and soak up as much of the music as I can. We don’t have a lot of the festivals that have a lot of the classic acts anymore, so whenever you get the chance to do something like that you really appreciate it.

In the US you don’t have a lot of classic acts? That surprises me!

No we don’t! That’s the reason why I spend - out of 160 dates I spend maybe 130 outside of the US. We’ll catch up hopefully!

The great thing about nostalgic and classic acts on festival lineups is that it makes the audience very inclusive, attracting people of all ages and backgrounds. This year’s Southport Weekender is inclusive of disco, house and soul at this year’s event, would you say these are genres that have helped shape your own sound? Is there anyone in particular on the lineup that you can credit for influencing you?

I can’t really draw a line to a specific person or a specific sound, I think it was beautiful growing up with the sound of Philadelphia with Gamble & Huff and you had the OJs and some of the amazing records they did, and then you also grew up with the likes of Motown and then the Stevie Wonder era, to then come in on the hip hop generation and be a part of that, I am like a musical mess. My brain is scrambled with so much music that I am influenced by almost everything. I am not a pessimist, so I don’t listen to music or watch movies for something that I don’t like.

I’m always looking for the positives in something, I’m always looking for the things I like about this movie or this album. I don’t listen to an album to say “oh my god, I hated this song”, you’ll always hear me talking about the stuff that I like. If it’s something that I don’t like I just won’t say anything. In my head, I am just as influenced by Soul II Soul than I am Kendrick Lamar.

You appear at hundreds of events per year all over the world, what do you do for down time? Or is this just your life. Is this your life entirely?

Yeah! I have a sign on my wall in the studio and it says “Music is not what I do, music is who I am” and that is the honest to God truth, I was just on the road for a month, been to maybe sixteen different countries, I came home, I’m jet lagged, my body clock is turned upside down and the first thing I did is come into the studio and play some music. That’s what it is!

I don’t necessarily look at the down time, of course there are times when I don’t do music, and I’ll hang out with my wife and kids, and we’ll go and get something to eat. It’s not the typical job that you come home and need a break from, my break is going to be a different kind of music.

I mean, you can sleep when you’re dead I guess! All jokes aside, that’s a really lovely outlook and it just showcases the passion you have for what you do, which is always good to hear.

I can’t go without mentioning those reunion dates you did with Will Smith, how did they come about?

Through a very long process of trying! It has never been an issue of wanting, it has always been an issue of scheduling. I was in LA and had an idea and concept for a show, I rode to his house, I showed to him and he was like “oh my god this is great, let’s do it!” It had to be done in the manner of, we had to commit and then work out all of the details.

It was probably two of the best shows we’ve ever done. He had a blast. He’s arguably one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, I’m doing 160 dates a year so we’re just trying to figure out at what time we can both stop what we’re doing to get together and do it.

Obviously your long running relationship with Will Smith began when you starred on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, when you began your acting role, did you ever think it would have such a timeless impact on it’s audience?

Not at all! Not at all. That goes for the music side also. This is something we thought we’d be doing because we enjoyed it. I compare it to someone playing football, you go out to the park and you play football, all of a sudden you realise you’re pretty good at it, someone pushes you to do it for real, you do it for real and you end up with this sort of legendary hall of fame career and you’re like “how did this happen?!” So I look at music like that but I especially look at the television show like that also because I was the one, in no way shape or form had any intentions of doing any acting.

Will got the show, they were like “you and Will have such great chemistry in videos and on stage, why don’t you do something on the show?” I was kind of like “no, I don’t want to, this isn’t what I want to do” they sort of pushed me into doing it, and five, six years later, I was on a TV show that’s played around the world. It’s almost hard for me to look at that show on television because my brain still does not compute that that is me. It’s really weird because that was not the plan, that was not the goal, not at all. They literally told me, “listen we have three shows, and the way you can look at is if you do one and you like it, great! You’ve got two more to look forward to. If you do one and you don’t like it, you only have two more to do.” I looked up and I was commuting to LA, I was learning all about stage blocking and camera blocking and it was crazy.

That’s one of the things that I think is great, even with Will and myself, there are times even still that we will be together - we will just look at each other and we can almost read each other’s minds. We’re looking at each other almost like, “Can you believe this? This is crazy!” and we did that at those shows, right before we walked on stage. When we were doing a show in Blackpool, the way the microphone was set up was that I had a microphone to talk to the crowd, I had one to talk to the band and I had one to talk to Will in his ear.

He was out on stage and I am so blown away about all of these people, I remember grabbing the mic that fed into his ear and saying, “Hey, tell everyone if they have a cellphone to turn the light on”. To see 20-something thousand people with a light on their cell phone gave me chills. We shot each other a look that was like “Can you believe this?!” It was absolutely amazing and I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.

Even watching back the Fresh Prince today it still sends such progressive messages in terms of race and class, were either of you aware at the time of how forward thinking the show was?

I think what happens is that they write the scripts, you read the lines and they tweak the lines, there was definitely a conscious effort to push the boundaries a little bit in some of the messaging, but I don’t think that we got to a point where we knew that. I remember Quincy Jones saying “Whenever you’re doing something monumental, you never know when you’re doing it.” We had no idea when it was happening, but we’d hit certain points and think it was a little deep, but it wasn’t like we’d sat down and thought it out, we were paying attention to this stuff going on.

While Will Smith is one of the most renowned collaborations, you’ve also collaborated and produced for both old school and new school names, with the likes of Eminem, Big Daddy Kane, De La soul and Method Man only mentioning a few - what qualities do you look for in an artist before working with you?

Just them being themselves. You know what it is? I look at this like art and what you want is someone to bring you their art. Someone asked me the other day - we recently did a show in Kenya and somebody asked “Well, what did you play in Kenya?” and I told them I played the same thing there that I would play anywhere. I would not come to London and play everything that everyone listens to in London, how does that make you special? If you’re listening to the same things on the radio, the last thing you want a DJ to do is play the exact same thing that they hear every day. The reason they want you is because they want you to bring your art, they want you to bring who you are.

So it’s almost the same thing when you decide to work with someone and they come into the studio, I don’t want you to do what I want you to do, I want you. I want to know what you want to do, this is a collaboration, this is us cooking, I’m bringing your seasoning, you’re bringing your seasoning - let’s cook something together and see what we come up with. Sometimes it comes up as a great meal but the last thing I want you to think is that if you’re working with me you need to do a certain thing a certain way. I think more than anything, you love and appreciate the artist and you can see the authenticity in what they do.

Do you have a stand out collaboration at all?

I don’t rank them! There’s some that are a little bit tougher. I went into the studio with Method Man and he wrote for two straight days, which I thought was incredible, he was so dedicated he wrote for two straight days. Then we got into the studio and cut it. I’ve gone in the studio with people and thought it was crazy because they’ve basically finished in like 15 minutes.

As a Ticket Arena tradition, we always finish our interviews with a track chosen by the DJ, what’s your go-to closing track at the moment?

I don’t have one! I know that sounds cliche but do you know why? What if your go-to closing track was played right before you get on, then you have to go to go-to closing track number two! I love to sit and look at what is needed at the time and then insert it. This is something I’ve been doing for 30 years and that has always worked for me, there’s no way in the world I could change that right now because I’ve seen it work!

Is there a track you’re listening to on repeat currently?

I am very very much into the Tom Misch album, that is my favourite album right now. Every song from top to bottom on that album is incredible. I’ve been saying this about Tom Misch for a while, but he’s really really put it together on this album.

I’m one of those people that when I get locked onto an album, it’s hard to get me off for while. I listen to a lot of music but just from the personal side and not the professional side, when I listen to music I get really, really into it. So I can’t listen to ten different albums at the same time, I’m that person that every time I get into the car, before I go to sleep, when I wake up, I soak myself up in it. Then I move onto the next one. I think it’s really really cool to be able to have something that you enjoy that much, and then go back to it like four or five months later, because it’s all refreshed and it’s great. I do a lot of that on the road, when I’ve got long times in the airport, I decide on what is going to be my playlist and when I put it on I’m in my own world.

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